To any high school football team in Illinois heading into the final regular season game with at least four wins, Friday night is just the start of the weekend.
On Saturday, the 256-team playoff field will be announced by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA).
Any team that already has six wins is in and will find out Saturday who and where they’ll play in the first round of the playoffs next weekend.
For any team with fewer than five wins after Friday night, the season is over. For teams with exactly five wins … well, that can get complicated. We’ll get back to that.
Football is the only IHSA sport in which all the teams don’t play in the postseason. Football has been played in Illinois since the late 1800s, but there was no postseason until 1974.
Before the playoffs, a 9-0 season was legendary. This year, the H&R area will likely have five teams finish with undefeated regular seasons — St. Teresa, Maroa-Forsyth, Argenta-Oreana, Monticello and Taylorville are all 8-0. But unless their seasons end in Champaign at the state championship game, there’s going to be some disappointment.
Most high school football fans have some idea of how the IHSA football playoffs work, but every year I talk to people who assume it’s something closer to the NCAA basketball tournament. There isn’t a blue ribbon panel scanning quality wins and RPI. It’s a pretty simple system, really. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard to think of anything that would work better. If you have an idea, I’d love to hear it (my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org).
Some things in life are too obvious to ignore.
Here’s a quick rundown (if you want a more thorough explanation, go to the IHSA website):
- There are 256 teams that make the playoffs, regardless of size. Unlike the other sports, in which classification is done by enrollment at the start of the school year, football classes aren’t determined until the 256 teams that make the playoffs are ordered by enrollment and split into the eight classes.
- All conference champions and teams with six wins make the playoffs. It is possible to make the playoffs as a conference champion without six wins, but it’s rare.
- The rest of the field is made up of five-win teams, but there are always more five-win teams than spots available. It used to be five or six teams at the most that won five games would be excluded, but more schools are fielding teams, so the number easily reaches double figures now. Last year 17 five-win teams, including Mount Zion, missed the playoffs, and there have been years that as many as 25 five-win teams didn’t make it.
- To decide which five-win teams make the playoffs, the number of opponents’ wins are used. The cutoff is usually somewhere between 36 and 39. If there’s a tie for the final spot, head-to-head competition is used if the teams have played, and if they haven’t, it comes down to number of teams played that qualified for the playoffs. If there’s still a tie … it gets wild. Eventually it comes down to a coin toss.
In the H&R area, there are two teams with four wins and eight teams with five wins. The five-win teams who come out on top Friday can relax and watch Saturday’s IHSA Football Playoff Pairing Show with the only suspense being who they’ll play in the first round. The four-win teams that win and the five-win teams that lose … most go through sleepless Friday nights trying to figure it out themselves before hearing it from the IHSA.
Determining the field is the easy part for the IHSA. The hard part is pairing the teams. First, each class is split into North and South. It used to be split into four “quadrants,” but that too often led to unbeaten or one-loss teams running into each other in the quarterfinals or earlier.
And, again, this isn’t the NCAA Tournament — seeds are based strictly on number of wins and opponent’s wins. If Maroa turns out to be the No. 4 seed in Class 2A, it’s not because the Herald & Review ranked the Trojans lower than St. Teresa in its top 10, or any reason other than because Maroa’s opponents didn’t win as many games as fellow unbeatens Carthage Illini West, St. Teresa and Fairfield.
Some fans love to dive in and figure out where their favorite team will end up in the first round — if they have a day or two to kill. But most just want to know where and when to show up for the game. If that’s what you’re looking for, the Herald & Review sports department has you covered. We’ll have the statewide pairings up on herald-review.com/sports as soon as they’re released by the IHSA, and will get reaction from several teams and even game times if the schools choose to release that before the IHSA makes it official on Monday.
There isn’t a better time of the high school sports season than the football playoffs. Here’s hoping we see your team in Champaign on Nov. 23-24.